Swimming Against the Tide

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Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without

Cultural norms tells us to go into debt shopping.

It may be better for the economy for everyone to shop till they drop, but that is not better for the individual household.

We are not mainstream at Fortress Peschel. We do odd things. I stay home to run the domestic economy (a fancy way of saying housewife). Our television is not hooked up to the outside world. I do things manually (knives vs. food processors, clotheslines vs. dryers) that take time and effort. I mend clothes. I patch sheets. When Bill went to the newspaper job as a copy editor, he packed homemade lunches and brought leftovers home. He brought beverages from home instead of buying from coffee or soda machines. We planed our car trips to minimize gasoline usage. We have two vehicles for three licensed drivers. I don’t shop for recreation. We take staycations where we rest and relax and work on home-improvement projects. The only traveling we do is to visit the grandparents in Delaware. We go to movies once a year or less. We rarely eat out.

Does this make us boring, dull people? Maybe. It certainly means that we don’t consume, consume, consume goods and services as economists say we should. It may be better for the economy for everyone to shop till they drop, but that is not better for the individual household. I have heard that the best possible person for the gross domestic product (i.e., spend the maximum amount of money) is a cancer patient going through a divorce. I don’t believe that creates happy people even though lots of money changes hands.

We don’t owe any money to anyone. Our mortgage is paid off and we own our cars. The one, lone credit card is paid every month and I make every effort to not use it. If I can’t pay cash, why am I buying the item? Hardcore thriftiness is letting us reach our goal of financial independence. We work hard, every day, and still have time to relax and have a life.

What I am getting at is that our culture — the water we swim in — tells us to do things that are not good for us.

What I am getting at is that our culture — the water we swim in — tells us to do things that are not good for us.

What I am getting at is that our culture — the water we swim in — tells us to do things that are not good for us. Why do you need the biggest mortgage you can qualify for on the biggest house you can find? I know the argument that the mortgage as a percentage of your salary will go down as you get those pay raises. Maybe. And maybe you won’t get those regular pay raises, and maybe that money is always needed elsewhere and you never, ever manage to pay off the mortgage.

You have to live somewhere, even if it is under a bridge. Your home is not an investment. It is where you live. If you want to get closer to financial security and independence, minimize the cost of your dwelling place. Buying a smaller house with a smaller mortgage that you can pay off early leads to your monthly expenditures being smaller. You will still have your utilities, groceries, insurance, and taxes but the mortgage is gone. Renters pay forever. Serial movers and refinancers pay forever. How can you retire — or quit that job you hate — with half your previous income if you still have the huge mortgage? You will have to sell the house and maybe, maybe, clear enough money to pay cash for a smaller house. Or you get a new, smaller mortgage and pay until you die or you rent an apartment and pay until you die.

Why do you need student loans to pay for your education? I find the idea of borrowing tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund a college degree pretty scary. Will you earn enough money to pay back $200,000 in loans (plus interest)? Maybe if you are a cardiologist it will. If you are going to be a social worker, a teacher, or a photographer? No. You will be in debt until you die. Like back taxes, student loan debt cannot be discharged in your eventual bankruptcy either. You owe them until you pay them off or you die.

If you are old enough to go to college, you should be old enough to do basic math and estimate future earnings as compared to your college debt load. If they don’t match, it is time to rethink your future. As a parent, I do not believe you are doing your children any favors by saying “don’t worry. Do what you love and the money will follow”. What drivel. Life and the universe do not care if you adore philosophy. Money will not appear. You will be applying your philosophy behind the counter at Starbucks and living at home with Mom until you pay off the loan or die.

You are also not doing your college children any favors by picking up the tab for their expensive college education. Are they going to work harder, knowing that you made it all possible by sacrificing your financial independence and retirement? Maybe. Maybe your student won’t party hearty through four or five years to get that BA. And when they get the good job, you can move in with them as you are now bankrupt. Maybe. This inability to connect current desire with future costs leads to financial problems. Part of growing up is learning that things have to be paid for, one way or another. Don’t send your children out into the world not knowing this.

Heretic!

It is heresy to say that not everyone is college material. But it is true. If you want or need further education, start with the local community college. The cost is infinitely less, you can live at home, and possibly hold down a part-time job to cover some of the costs. It accustoms you to a college-level education. In high school, students get used to lots of handholding, encouragement, rah rah rah, and follow-up to be sure they show up and do their work. The college doesn’t care. Their only concern is that the check clears. Students are supposed to be adults who show up on time, do the work, and hand it in when it is due.

As a parent, look at your student. Is he or she really going to work hard, independently, without constant supervision and management?

As a parent, look at your student. Is he or she really going to work hard, independently, without constant supervision and management?

As a parent, look at your student. Is he or she really going to work hard, independently, without constant supervision and management? If they can’t do it now, for free, why will it be better five hundred miles away with a truckload of borrowed money?

If you are contemplating college yourself, you need to be very honest. Are you studying hard now, taking advantage of all the free education being offered to you by people who want you to succeed? Are you stretching yourself with the fullest course load the high school will let you take? If you are not, get your head out of your ass and get to work. College will not be better, easier or more rewarding than high school if you are lazy and shiftless. If you don’t have a future career in mind (cardiology), then take the widest array of classes you can. Taste everything to see what you like. Work hard, ask questions, and get the best education you can while it is free. The highest GPAs lead to potential scholarship offers which can cut your costs drastically.

Rejoin the Real World

Boring, dreary Mundania. Who wouldn't want to avoid it?

Boring, dreary Mundania. Who wouldn’t want to avoid it?

Another message our culture sends us is that we need constant stimulation. Do you really need earbuds in place all the time lest you accidentally hear the people around you? Why are you more involved with your phone and ignoring the people sitting besides you? You know, the ones you claim to care about deeply. Isolation in a technology bubble certainly means you get what you want and when you want it. You don’t have to interact with pesky, live family members who might misunderstand you or want you to do something you don’t want to. Boring, dreary Mundania. Who wouldn’t want to avoid it? But your social skills, your people skills, your real-world abilities to do and achieve do not improve when they go unused. They atrophy and it becomes ever harder to cope with messy, irritating humans and their petty wants and needs. If you are genuinely concerned about the difficult future bearing down on us, then you should break the electronic apron strings and rejoin the real world.

We do this by not playing. Our television is not connected to the outside world. It can only play games and DVDs. It is an effort to use it so it doesn’t get used that much. The TV certainly doesn’t get left on to play to an empty room.

I don’t do social media. I have no Facebook page, I don’t tweet, I spend very little time on-line. I don’t even text. Bill has a Facebook account he ignores and a Twitter account he rarely uses. He does maintain the website PlanetPeschel.com as it acts as a platform to promote his writing and mine.

Our household does have a cell phone. My sister insisted. I do use it when traveling to say I am on the way home. Otherwise, it stays off and tucked away. I do not like to be on an electronic dog leash and so I am not. Somehow, the world gets by without me being one hundred percent available one hundred percent of the time. Older son has a smartphone that he bought and paid for himself. No one else in the household does. We don’t live under the threat of constant kidnapping so why do I need to keep constant tabs on everyone? Even more than cell phones, smartphones distract the user away from the people in front of him and into the virtual world. If you are serious about connecting with the people you claim to care about, you need to be there with them in spirit as well as in body. Not talking to someone else who isn’t there but is clearly more interesting.

I hear people claim all the time they don’t have time to cook from scratch (admittedly this can be time consuming), garden, sew, wood-work, exercise, be thrifty, get organized or volunteer. Stop spending several hours a day with your TV or your social media or aimless surfing or hunting Orcs online and time will magically appear.

Everyone gets 24 hours a day. You never get less, but you never get more either. Subtract eight hours for sleep (don’t kid yourself; you need every minute), another hour or two for eating and hygiene, eight to ten hours for job and commute and you have only five or six hours left per day. Are you going to watch TV or study hard to learn more marketable skills? Are you going to exercise, work out, learn self-defense, go to the shooting range and improve your abilities or hunt Orcs online? Guess which option will make you stronger and more resilient. Will playing games on Facebook teach you how to darn socks or grow food? Subtract out what you have to do and then decide how valuable the remaining time is to you. Use it to learn and grow or fritter it away aimlessly. You choose.

Does avoiding electronic time sucks make us boring and dull? Maybe. But I am pretty well read and reasonably up on current events. I can walk into a kitchen, cold, and turn out a complete meal for five in an hour or so. I can repair almost any piece of clothing and make it last longer. I exercise and improve my fitness and health. I write Fortress Peschel. I walk my dog and learn all about my neighborhood and even meet my neighbors. I volunteer with the Derry Township EcoAction Committee and plant trees and arrange recycling workshops.

Examine your life. Is it what you want it to be?

Examine your life. Is it what you want it to be?

The culture around us, the water we swim in, values certain things. Are those things what you value? If you don’t want to emulate the Kardashians, then why are you watching them? If you say you want a comfortable retirement, then why are you deep in debt? Examine your life. Is it what you want it to be? If you say you want closer relationships with your family, then you need to be physically and emotionally present. Pay attention to them and not the virtual world. If you want to grow your own vegetables, then you need to start a garden and actually get your hands dirty. If your health concerns you, then start eating a better diet and exercising every day. If you want more knowledge or skills, then start learning and working. You can choose to swim against the tide and improve your life. But you have to be mindful, aware, and work to do it.

Next Week: Home Water Storage